Having surpassed his 100th birthday this past April 4, Fay Holt has a accrued a fascinating catalog of experiences to reflect upon, ranging from growing up on a farm near Dixie in the 1920s to serving with an African American military police company in World War II. Some of these memories are pleasant while others are defined by hardship; regardless, he moves forward with a humorous perspective on where life has carried him throughout the decades.
“I used to be 200 pounds and I’m a long way from that now,” he grinned. “You get to my age and you start drying up a little bit,” he laughed.
Holt explained that as a young boy, he received an eighth-grade education at a local Methodist church in the days of Jim Crow, when black children were not allowed to attend the local white school. He then began his career working on a local farm, clinging to aspirations of someday embarking upon his own agricultural endeavors. However, the summer of 1942 brought with it major changes when he received a letter that led to his induction into the U.S. Army. Arriving at Jefferson Barracks in July 1942, Holt was sent to Camp Whitside—a military site once located on Fort Riley, Kansas.
“We took our basic training there and were part of an all-black outfit … including our instructors,” recalled Holt. “The walls of our barracks were wooden with canvas tops and we learned self-defense and even how to shoot 12-gauge shotguns.”
While at Camp Whitside, Holt and his fellow trainees were assigned to Company A, 743rd Military Police Battalion. Throughout the next several months, the soldiers of the company continued in their specialized training while learning to guard prisoner of war camps and performing police-related functions such as traffic control. The application of their months of training arrived in early August 1943, when they boarded trains that carried them to the East Coast. From there, they boarded troop ships that soon sailed for Algeria.
“There were a lot of people that got sick on the boat going over, but not me!” he proudly exclaimed. “When we got to Algeria, it was hot, burning the devil out of us,” he grinned in reflection.
Upon their arrival in North Africa, the battalion engaged in a number of security duties, later serving at a location in Tunisia. Shortly thereafter, the battalion departed on troop ships bound for Naples, Italy, where they received a less than friendly welcome.
“Once we got off the ship, we were running for cover and toting our shotguns,” he said. “We scrambled to a nearby building because there were mortar rounds going off all around us.”
The battle that unfolded upon their arrival soon settled down and they resumed activities similar to those conducted in North Africa—guard duty, security and traffic control for secure areas. Although there were occasions when Holt believed he might have to shoot an aggressive prisoner of war, it was the local children who left an enduring impression on him.
“I really felt for the kids over there in Italy,” he solemnly explained. “A lot of them didn’t have anything to eat and several times I’d give them my food.” He softly added, “I hate to see somebody go hungry, especially a child.”
The war in Europe ended in May 1945, and the 743rd Military Police Battalion prepared to board ships bound for the war raging in the Pacific. Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered and the battalion was redirected back to the United States. After their arrival on the East Coast in late November 1945, Holt was sent to Jefferson Barracks and discharged a few days later. In the years that followed, he married, built a home in Guthrie and went on to raise six children; however, Holt explained, he was never able to pursue his desired career as a farmer.
“I tried farming at first but I could never make enough money at it to support a family,” he said.
Eventually, the veteran spent several years driving a truck and working as a police officer for the New Bloomfield Police Department. He later embarked upon a career as a guard at the former Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, retiring after 26 years of employment. His golden years have provided him time for many relaxing activities, but he most enjoys playing checkers at his retirement community in Eldon, proudly declaring that he has earned the coveted distinction of “checkers champion” because of his achievements in the game.
Though having recently achieved the rare distinction of being a centenarian, Holt claims there is not a specific practice that has led to his longevity, but affirms he enjoys drinking a can of beer every day. Additionally, he explained that many of his fellow veterans may possess unwavering memories of their own service, but he has forgotten much of his own because of activities occurring after his discharge.
“I am proud of my military service and all that we did during the war,” said Holt. “But looking back on all of it, I can’t tell you much of what happened because it wasn’t something that I sat around thinking about when it was over.” He further noted, “When I got home from the war, I had to go to work because I had a family to take care of and back then, let me tell you … that was some tough work. I didn’t have time to sit around and think about the Army,” he chuckled.
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.